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The truth about Carrier IQ phone tracking

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File

(Read caption) Senate Judiciary Committee member, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in this file photo. Franken has accused software company Carrier IQ of violating cell phone users' privacy with its tracking software.

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Senator Al Franken is outraged that Carrier IQ is spying on smartphone users. He has accused the company of violating numerous federal wiretap statues and the lawsuits are already flying.

Skimming the media, one might presume that this villainous outfit sneaks onto people’s cell phones at night, monitors their every keystroke and text message and empties their bank accounts and announces their love affairs at the town square at the first opportunity.

The reality is a little more somber.The Carrier IQ software is installed on phones by cell phone carriers to report diagnostic information. While the potential scope of the software is troubling, it is only capable of recording the information that cell phone providers install on it. It seems to be that at worst, Carrier IQ can be blamed from providing the munitions – but it is the cell phone companies who pull the trigger.

But there are other troubling questions. The use of the carrier IQ software was never secret – while the details were usually glossed over, all carriers admit to collecting diagnostic information from their customers – they have to, in order to do their job. Why is a software and service vendor being blamed for providing services to carriers? No one is forcing people to use cell phones from a particular carrier or even to use a particular model with any carrier. At most, we can accuse carriers of not sufficiently disclosing the capability of their diagnostic tools. Is this really deserving of a Senatorial investigation?

I have a few thoughts on why this might be.

First, there are only a few carriers in the United States, who have much more control over devices and service contracts than most other countries. In Europe and Asia, for example, consumers pay full price for generic cell phones and pay relatively low fees for phone service. For example, in China (where I happen to live), one can buy an anonymous throw away phone number, a cheap cell phone and hundreds of minutes of talk time for about $30. By contrast, a typical Verizon or AT&T cell phone, comes with a two year contract and is heavily customized and locked down by the carrier. It is perhaps not surprising that people are who feel stuck with their carrier cry to the government for help.

Second, there is the widespread perception that telecommunications in the U.S. are closely monitored by a junta of corporations and government agencies, who spy on individuals secretly and with little or no constitutional protections. (This perception happens to be true.)

From these two facts, comes widespread suspicious of any activities which may by deemed as “spying” on users by corporations. Not of the government mind you, but corporations, as if AT&T makes billions in profits and customer goodwill from listening to your conversions.

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Actually, the government does pay billions to corporations to spy on you, both for monitoring technologies and wiretap fees. So maybe the fears are not entirely unfounded. But surely people should recognize that without politicians to fund a huge government-industrial anti terrorist/IP pirate complex, and without highly-regulated government-granted monopolies of telecom services, spying on your customers would not be a huge profit center.

It gets worse. Senator Al Franken chairs the Senate’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law and is a co-sponsor of the COICA and PROTECT IP (SOPA) acts, which would create a censorship firewall around the USA in the name of protecting us from piracy and allow the government to seize any website without any due process whatsoever. He also voted twice to extend the Patriot Act – after many years of criticizing the Bush administration for the same. Furthermore, he is a leading champion of net neutrality – or ever stricter “fairness” rules for telecoms.

So, who is the greater threat to your privacy – the U.S. government or a small software company that provides diagnostics services for cell phones?

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